Depictions of the Irish onstage come with a certain amount of stereotypical baggage — including the notion of Ireland as a place where poetry and lyricism simply bubble up from the peat bogs to be voiced by colorful whiskey-drinking fellas in wool sweaters and tweed flat caps.
We get some of that in “Sea Marks,” a 1981 romantic comedy by an American, Gardner McKay, a one-time actor who turned to playwriting. Director Jan Rogge delivers a polished Kansas City Actors Theatre production and captures strong performances by two gifted actors. Darren Kennedy and Cinnamon Schultz admirably handle their eccentric characters with skill and in so doing smooth over some of the play’s forced plotting and implausible turns. McKay too often settles for fluffy humor despite some significant poetic flourishes, arresting monologues and effective banter.
“Sea Marks” depicts a blossoming romance between Colm Primrose, a bachelor fisherman who lives a simple life on an island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, and Timothea Stiles, a native of Wales who works for a publishing house in Liverpool. The early courtship takes the form of letter-writing after Colm observes the visiting Timothea from a distance at a wedding party. So in the early going the show consists exclusively of correspondence between the two. Theatergoers unfamiliar with the play could be alarmed by the thought that McCay may never liberate Colm and Timothea from their writing desks. Never fear. They do, eventually, meet face to face.
In the Internet age, the play’s over-arching proposition that two people can fall in love by putting pen to paper and creating an eloquent correspondence is both plausible and poignant. When Colm and Timothea finally meet, she easily convinces him to return with her to Liverpool where they will share her small flat. Timothea goes to work while Colm wonders what to do with himself.
Without bothering to inform Colm, Timothea compiles parts of his letters into a manuscript and submits it to her employer for publication. But Colm is a fisherman, not a writer, so things get complicated.
In her program notes, dramaturg Ellen Hayek surmises that the ancient Irish legend of the selkie, a mythical creature who takes the form of a seal in water but becomes human on land, informs McKay’s play. Just as the legendary selkie could live on land, marry and have children but all the while long to return to the sea, Colm never makes his peace with Liverpool.
Schultz and Kennedy are so good together that they make it all seem spontaneous and fresh. That’s no small accomplishment, considering some of the obstacles McKay built into the play. The actors allow us to disregard some of the script’s awkward plot turns, which only undermine the play’s strengths. And those strengths are impressive. McCay succeeds in sketching a number of vivid, off-stage characters, including Timothea’s ex-husband and Colm’s father and fishing partner. The result is a persuasive sense that Colm and Timothea come from unique worlds that are strange, beautiful and specific.
The show is handsomely mounted, from Gary Mosby’s simple scenic design to Sarah Oliver’s costumes and Shane Rowse’s effective lighting. And certain moments stick with you — particularly an evocative monologue in which a drunken Colm addresses a literary club and delivers an extemporaneous essay on the harsh way of life required of a cruelly indifferent sea.
Bottom line: The material is solid enough for Schultz and Kennedy to show us just how good they are. And they are very good, indeed.